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Paisley: The chief bigot is dead

The sectarian state lives on

John McAnulty

16 September 2014

Some years ago, when Ian Paisley ascended to the post of First Minister at Stormont,  Hollywood began to pitch a new film - a biopic of his life. The narrative was a straightforward formula: An outsider, something of a rough diamond, gradually transformed into a statesman and peacemaker. At one stage Liam Neeson was approached as a possible Paisley.

The idea fell through. It was too far away from reality for even Hollywood to run it with both the arch-bigot and his many victims around to present the truth.

Now death, and a natural reluctance to criticise the dead, makes it possible to run yet again with the fairytale of Paisley the peacemaker.

It’s still a tissue of lies.

Paisley was never an outsider. The stew of bigots, paramilitaries, Orangemen and religious zealots was, and is, an integral part of unionism’s base. Bible thumping and bigotry had for many years been a recognized career path for the ambitious "poor white" of northern unionism. Paisley apprenticed in Ireland and graduated by travelling to the US to link up with the far right US Christian fundamentalist movement.

Those who want to spin the peacemaker story begin late in his career with the "Never, Never, Never" opposition to power sharing.  Few outside the gay community remember his "Save Ulster from Sodomy" campaign - a campaign that lives today inside the DUP.  Those who doubt his conversion to peace quote the 1968 claim that Catholics homes had burnt in the pogroms because they were filled with petrol bombs. Those with a more intimate knowledge remember his threat, before the outbreak of the troubles, to invade the Falls Road to remove a tricolour and the Divis Street riots that followed. Even more revealing was: "did ye tell?" - reported by an informer in police custody when Paisley was granted access as a pastor - evidence of his close links with the emerging death squads. This involvement in riot and on the edges of paramilitary activity predated both the Civil Rights movement and the regrowth of republicanism.

Those who advance the great man theory ignore the context of Paisley's rise. He was the chief bigot in a sectarian society sponsored by an imperialist power. His early proposal to march into a nationalist ghetto to remove a tricolour would have led to his arrest in a democratic society. Instead the police invaded in his place and smashed up a republican election office to seize the flag. Paisley’s following grew apace. His revolts against British plans rarely had any personal cost and usually increased his influence.

The development of the peace process is a perfect example of this. British policy after the Downing Street agreement can be informally summed up as: "Ulster must say yes to something," but within that limit the usual strategy of conciliation operated. A spiral of reaction went on where Paisley was able constantly push the deal to the right and each success increased the DUP vote. The end result was a mass shift to right within Unionism, Paisley finally winning majority leadership and the DUP becoming the dominant party.

All is forgiven by the emergence of Paisley the peacemaker. Yet Paisley's  endorsement of the settlement contained little in the way of conciliation, claiming that he had extracted every last drop of blood from the Provos and heaped "sackcloth and ashes" on republican sinners and that even then the main reason for signing up was that the alternative - an advisory role for Dublin in the local administration - was far worse.

Paisley agreed to the setting up of the local administration involving Sinn Fein because at the end of the day the British, this time, would not take no for an answer and because the bribe was too big. He was able to end his career as first minister of the North, oversee the surrender and disbandment of the IRA and with himself and his wife entering the House of Lords. Throughout his career political and religious advancement had always led to personal profit for himself and his family.

Paisley's death has led to a strange disjunction. Unionist tributes have for the most part been formal and restrained. Many Unionists hated him for his ruthless attacks on their leaders. Many Loyalists believe that he led them up the hill towards paramilitary violence and abandoned them to time in jail while his career went onwards and upwards. His passing is in sharp contrast to the triumphalism of the death of Lord Carson, the founder of Unionism.  In contrast to the militarised class unity of early unionism Paisley was able for a time to become the chief faction in a factionalised movement – a movement constantly unravelling, with a suicidal programme of asserting yet again the sectarian ascendency of the past.

On the other hand there is an outpouring of grief from Sinn Fein. Martin McGuinness has lost his bestest friend. Derry Council opens a book of condolence, followed by Belfast. Gerry Adams is prominent in the queue to sign up and the nationalist councillors agree to fly the Union flag at half-mast.

The tears of Sinn Fein are easy to explain. They explain their capitulation to British rule as part of a joint journey by themselves and unionism towards a new, equal society. Each side must make compromises. Yet the daily headlines and the 20 years since the IRA ceasefire show little sign of unionist compromise. Surely big Ian, in his role as one of the "chuckle brothers" alongside McGuinness, is the perfect example of what is possible? 

Yet in their time as minister and deputy Paisley never referred to McGuinness by name, only as deputy. He rarely looked directly at him. The constant chuckling evidence of a man in a bizarre situation he was unable to cope with.

The death knell of the common journey thesis is shown by Paisley's fate. He is to be buried alone, having been forced from power in both the political party and the fundamentalist church that he founded. As chief bigot he had the authority to enter an administration with Sinn Fein. However the monstrous tiger of bigotry devoured him in his turn.

Those who write the obituary of Paisley in terms of the man himself miss the point. He was an able and intelligent man whose mental furniture was extremely narrow. He was an opponent of democracy who knew nothing of science and what little philosophy he knew was learnt in order to thoroughly reject it.  A religious zealot, creationist, racist, homophobe and misogynist, he inhabited a world of the 14th century - a sort of fundamentalist Christian Caliphate.

In most societies outside America’s deep South these attributes would have represented a dreadful handicap. In the North of Ireland it was a sure-fire road to the top. The inevitable revolt by the victims of the Orange monster he controlled was suppressed by the British sponsors of the state.

The chief bigot is dead. He used the ogre of sectarianism to devour many generations of unionist rivals. He was devoured in his turn.  Robinson, the Brutus who brought him down, will soon be devoured also. The imperialist powers look on indulgently, searching for ways to preserve a corrupt society.

The Archbigot is dead. The death of the sectarian statelet, of imperialist domination, awaits the working class awakening last seen in Ireland in the ‘60s.

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